In his amusingly-titled article “Smells Like Dead Junkie,” Jim Goad, an iconoclastic icon if ever there was one, takes rhetorical dead aim at Kurt Cobain, the famously fame-hating rock star, heroin addict, and supposed voice of Generation X, who took literal dead aim at himself back on April 5, 1994, when the self-directed Shot Heard ’Round the Grunge World tore a massive hole through the Nirvana frontman’s peroxide-fringed head, knocking the life out of this lead screamer’s poetically plaintive blue eyes and caking the ceiling of the celebrated anti-celebrity’s Seattle mansion with his gorgeously tortured brains.
Much as I appreciate Goad’s scathing and inimitably witty invective in assailing the grisly and insufferable rock-journo-fueled Cobain personality cult, however, I find his overall assessment of the left-handed guitarist with the naively left-wing views a bit off the mark. Cobain’s über-politically correct “cultural Marxism,” as expressed in certain sections in his journal where he attacks White heterosexual males and promotes riot-grrl feminism and homosexuality ought not, I believe, unduly inform our understanding of his personality or music.
Cobain himself saw with clarity that he barely knew what he was talking about when he indulged in such rants, and in fact was aware that it amounted to little more than blowing off steam against people who annoyed him—namely, jerky jocks and mean, macho metalheads. He never took himself seriously enough to view himself as anything other than a lightweight on political or social matters.
One journal entry is quite telling on this score: “I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity,” Cobain wrote. “I like sincerity. I lack sincerity,” he added, demonstrating characteristically cutting self-awareness in undermining the very thing that would even lend him credibility in his own eyes. Cobain wasn’t a poseur when it came to self-loathing; one gets the sense, in fact, that this aspect of his personality was very real, indeed, primal.
Self-hatred is a brutally recurrent motif in the lyrics of Nirvana’s songs; it is, in fact, the thematic centerpiece of the now-legendary Nevermind album, whose release 20 years ago suddenly and shockingly changed the sound, look, and feel of hard-rock music, transforming it from a bombastic, flamboyant celebration of hedonist excess (think Poison, Motley Crue, White Lion, Whitesnake and other popular “Hair Metal” bands of the '80s and early '90s) into something darkly satirical, snarlingly bilious and emotionally raw.
By turns achingly sad, raucously angry, and chillingly nihilistic in tone, Nevermind reflects, perhaps consciously, the punk ethos of the similarly-named Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Indeed, Cobain often seems to be channeling Johnny Rotten’s outrageously ironic authorial voice; his anthemic indictment of trendy conformity, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” brings to mind the Pistol’s “Pretty Vacant”; the famous couplet, “I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now; entertain us!” gleefully attacks the entitlement-mentality of brainless and spoiled youth looking for the New Big Thing to celebrate together in their sheeplike herd.
Vaguely aware of, and dissatisfied with, his own shallowness, the speaker of this song ultimately doesn’t care: “I find it hard, it’s hard to find / Oh, well, whatever, never mind.” At moments like this, the listener becomes aware that Cobain has himself in mind as the object of his own contempt; he feels he cuts a ridiculous figure; his bid to embody the spirit of flaming youth only amounts to something as derivative and contrived as a deodorant spray cynically marketed to teens (the “Teen Spirit” of the title) for profit. Later, Cobain was to reflect, in this same jaded vein, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old.”
Other highlights of Nevermind include the bruisingly lacerating yet maddeningly catchy “Lithium,” told from the point of view of a drug-addled manic-depressive schizophrenic who can’t decide if he’s miserable or ecstatic:
I’m so happy, cuz today I found my friends in my head
I’m so ugly; that’s okay, cuz so are you…
I’m so lonely; that’s okay, I shaved my head, and I’m not sad.
Nevermind also included the hypnotic “Come As You Are,” whose folksy, friendly, and welcoming-sounding title is belied by lyrics which suggest mind-control and manipulation, and whose eerily prescient refrain: “Well I swear that I don’t have a gun / No, I don’t have a gun/ No, I don’t have a gun” which sounds more like a lie the more it is endlessly repeated, suggesting that coercion and violence may be in store for the object of the speaker’s attention.
But it’s when Nirvana goes totally low-fi, away from howling guitars and screaming vocals and into quiet ballad-land that the effects are perhaps most startling. The elegantly bleak “Something In the Way” depicts a homeless man’s daily activities with complete lack of sentimentality—this is miles away from the cloying and patronizing territory tread by most rock singers of the era on the then-trendy issue of homelessness (think Genesis’s “Another Day in Paradise” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Philadelphia”)—leaving us only with a flat, barren, cold, and lonely sense of detachment.
Even more striking is “Polly,” which tells of an abduction and rape in progress from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. Cobain couldn’t have been too much of a pre-emo emasculated male feminist, or he wouldn’t have had it in him to write this most politically incorrect of songs, where the speaker dryly taunts his victim, even as he’s violating her: “Polly wants a cracker / I think I should get off her first.” Ultimately, it seems that neither the criminal nor his captive are able to obtain any sense of pleasure or pain from their shared experience: “Polly says her back hurts / She’s just as bored as me.” Again, the listener is caught up short by the overall absence of emotion; the detachment, somehow, is much more devastatingly poignant than any heartfelt plea for justice, tolerance, or mercy would have been in its place.
Indeed, for all of Kurt’s occasional jibes at middle-American conservative values in his diaries, Nirvana’s music determinedly eschews any trace of social-consciousness, or preachy rah-rah “hooray for our side” indulgences in self-righteousness so often expressed by representatives of the trendy-Left cultural cognoscenti in their bitter disdain for the alleged backwardness of the Red State segment of the population. (See, inter alia, Green Day’s immensely irritating American Idiot.)Instead, “Nevermind” turns its rabid vitriol on its own likely audience, and then on itself. The speaker’s tone in all of these songs is consistently rude, abrasive, sardonic, world-weary, and cynical; if he ever affects sincerity, it’s all a façade masking either sinister motives or outright insanity. There is no call to action: all action, it seems, is futile and pointless—all ideologies ridiculous, morally bankrupt, and self-serving—every would-be leader corrupt to the core, the mass of the population little more than brain-dead zombies demanding to be entertained with “stupid and contagious” postmodern bread and circuses.
Cobain may have struck certain political postures in various minor and generally insignificant ways, but at his core he seems to have believed in very little. Nihilism, when truly embraced without compromise, is bound to bear bitter fruit. In Kurt’s case, it led to drug addiction, depression, and his eventual suicide. Apparently even his love for his baby daughter wasn’t enough to prevent Cobain from launching himself into oblivion. If he wasn’t going to stay alive for Frances Bean (now a grown and lovely young woman), he certainly wasn’t going to stick around for the sake of the fortune and fame he’d unwittingly attained.
Kurt’s nihilism was certainly a blight on his existence, leading to many bad choices and habits, and ultimately to his highly ignoble final act of self-extinguishment. Artistically speaking, however, it is the relentless dissatisfaction with all causes, creeds, and smelly little orthodoxies that lends an album like Nevermind both power and a sort of wild, unkempt integrity.
We all have to pass through darkness in order to get to the light. Cobain never made it through the darkness...but while immersed in it, he recorded its gloom and horror brilliantly and pitilessly. Nevermind has given many a lonely soul solace and comfort in the last two decades, simply by reminding them that they are not alone. However overrated Kurt himself might be—and I have little doubt that he would have substantially agreed with Goad’s assessment on this score—such an achievement ought not be undervalued, methinks.